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Auburn University Authorities Revamp Controlled Environment Agriculture

While controlled environment agriculture, or CEA, offers the potential to increase year-round access to local, healthy fruits and vegetables, greenhouse gas emissions connected with greenhouse production are five times higher than those associated with field-grown produce.

Shivam Dwivedi
Auburn University Authorities Revamp Controlled Environment Agriculture
Auburn University Authorities Revamp Controlled Environment Agriculture

As a result, Auburn University academics are beginning on a broad and ambitious effort to rethink CEA as a more sustainable method to food production. The project, titled "Reimagining Controlled Environment in a Low-Carbon Future," is the recipient of a $9.95 million grant from the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture's Sustainable Agricultural Systems programme.

"CEA must be redesigned to become a sustainable approach to food production," said Brendan Higgins, project director and associate professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering at the College of Agriculture.

"Our team's long-term goal is to transform CEA strategically, managerially, technologically, and socially so that it may be positioned as a viable food production system capable of supplying sufficient and healthy foods in a low-carbon economy. This award illustrates the acknowledgement of the value and relevance of the CEA cutting-edge research that Dr. Higgins and his partners are conducting," said Oladiran Fasina, department head and Alumni Professor for the Department of Biosystems Engineering at the College of Agriculture.

"The project will play a significant role in transitioning CEA into a viable food production system, especially given that CEA is expected to play a critical role in addressing food security concerns that will occur when the world population grows to more than 9 billion by 2050."

The Auburn research team will conduct research, extension, and instructional initiatives that are consistent with four main principles for reducing CEA's carbon intensity: 1) Decrease the demand for heating and cooling in CEA; 2) Increase the efficiency of CEA climate control; 3) Reduce the carbon intensity of resource inputs; and 4) Change consumer and producer behaviour in relation to CEA products and activities.

"Our team consists of 19 investigators from five land-grant universities with expertise in plant biology, horticulture, biosystems engineering, computer science, and agricultural economics," Higgins explained. Given the vast current markets for both items and the significant differences in their environmental needs, the project's concentration is on greenhouse production of lettuce and tomatoes.

"Our initiative is guided by a producer advisory board, a CEA equipment vendor, and a dedicated project evaluator," Higgins explained. "Our efforts will result in a climate-smart CEA production system that allows future generations to reap the health advantages of fresh, local produce while supporting local economy."

Other Auburn researchers involved in the research include Sushil Adhikari, professor, biosystems engineering; David Blersch, associate professor, biosystems engineering; David Cline, associate extension professor, School of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences; Hossein Jahromi, assistant research professor, biosystems engineering; Daniela Marghitu, Department of Computer Science and Software Engineering; Jeremy Pickens, assistant extension professor, Ornamental Horticulture Research Center; Neha Potnis, associate professor, Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology; and Daniel Wells, associate professor, Department of Horticulture.

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